Andrew Martin and reflexive writing

Monday, September 2, 2019 - 4:26pm

Emily Yang

Emily Yang Buy this photo

The often-repeated injunction “write what you know” always seemed tautological to me — can it be otherwise? Everything comes from somewhere. It’s unsurprising, though, that there are a lot of novels about writers and their social circles, and often about the process of writing a novel. As a professional writer, a certain kind of intellectual sociality is probably easier to render in detail than nearly anything else. So-called “metafiction” is only at the extreme end of this.

One recent, and very good, example of a novel about novelists is “Early Work” by Andrew Martin. The story follows the would-be writer Peter Cunningham, who is working on a vaguely-defined book after dropping out of Yale’s graduate program, and lives with with his medical-school-student girlfriend Julia near the University of Virginia. Peter teaches writing at a women’s prison, a job which leaves him with incredible amounts of free time that he seems to use mostly for visiting friends and occasionally writing, seemingly without success: “As anyone who’s ever pretended to be a writer knows, ‘the book’ was really a handy metaphor for tinkering with hundreds of Word documents that bore a vague thematic resemblance to each other, but would never cohere into the, what, saga of ice and fire that they were imagining.” His charmed, stagnant life is interrupted by his sudden attraction to another young, somewhat directionless writer named Leslie, and the two soon embark on an affair. 

It’s a novel that could only be written by someone firmly entrenched within the milieu of its characters — overeducated, self-conscious creative types — and probably is only readable by members of the same set. The then two-couple dynamic of the plot is a shameless cliché, something Martin freely acknowledges. The book’s interest lies in its incredibly engaging voice. Its humor is mostly subtle, communicated on the level of language. Martin always finds the exact right word to nudge a line of dialogue into absurdity, always finds a way to communicate trepidation, desire or quiet anger with the balance of a sentence. For example, here’s Leslie describing seeing a film with a boyfriend: “She usually loved boring movies, loved to sit and stare at people’s faces as they stared at other things, even when there was a second-tier jam band making supposedly joyful noise through the wall.” Like many of the novel’s scraps of inner monologue, this sentence holds many competing thoughts and feelings together in a precipitous balance — the film is simultaneously boring and enjoyable, the jam band is simultaneously annoying, but could be heard as joyful. The book is saturated with references, nearly always with attendant ambivalence. One gets the sense that there are multiple layers of cultural scripts operating in most of the conversations in the book. Leslie again, on Future’s Dirty Sprite 2: “‘Yeah, I’m pretty into monotonous drug rap right now,’ she said. ‘I mean, like everybody. I guess it’s the usual racist thing, where white people like it because it takes their worst suspicions about minorities and confirms them in lurid and entertaining ways?” To which Peter responds, “Yeah, that’s why I like it. Racist reasons mostly. I’m not thrilled about the misogyny, though.” 

This frequently-quoted segment of dialogue is only one example of a curious discursive form Martin plays with in a million different ways. Everyone in the book has been educated into a sense of what constitutes good art, a necessarily exclusionary concept: this makes their interactions with most everything else slightly tortuous at best. Leslie listening to DS2 isn’t the same thing as an ironic appropriation — it’s a genuine sense of shame, tempered by an equally-weighted awareness of how absurd this shame is. The characters renounce and love in the same breath, arriving back at a wordier version of where they started.

Martin exercises a similar ambivalence about the affair that structures the book. Peter does not try to rationalize his split affection for Julia and Leslie, and thankfully doesn’t make a caricature out of Julia. In fact, she comes across as quite personable in addition to her talents (she’s also a published poet, implicitly a more productive writer than Peter). There is very little actual parody in the book. Peter knows that he’s making a stupid decision that will hurt someone he loves, and he does it anyway. In a similar anecdote, Leslie, living in New York City, has a stable relationship with Katie, a dramaturge who “showers as much as once a day,” and feels irrationally stifled by Katie’s clipped togetherness — not because of anything Katie does, necessarily, but because Leslie doesn’t feel like she has space to be irresponsible in it. Right before Leslie abandons her relationship with Katie, she thinks to herself: “Why was there nothing goddamn mysterious about (Katie), like there was about everyone else? Why were even her adventures so cramped and circumscribed?”

This is to say that Peter and Leslie are both seeking their freedom, every relationship a provisional step on the way to self-realization. Martin is compassionate toward this impulse, even while showing how ugly the fallout from it can be. The novel ultimately suggests that people can create their own fates, even as it also documents lucidly the vagueness of the disaffections that compel us to act, and the unforeseen consequences of these actions. The book is forgiving and optimistic about human nature, and this might be why it’s overall very pleasant to read despite the literal events in the plot often being rather ugly. For Martin, self-creation is what ties together romantic relationships and art-making — two noble pursuits that we can’t help but fail at.